The Freelance Mentalists.
Wednesday, November 30, 2005
  Louisville Lip

Louisville Lip
By Don Allred

Part One:
Once upon a time, in the land o' Goshen, a nice, woodsy suburb of Louisville,
Kentucky, there were two teenaged girls, Janet Bean and Cathy Irwin. And back
then, at the dawn of the 80s, they were involved in an ongoing series of punk
bands, like Dick Brains, Butt In Front, Bunny Butthole, and Catbutt/Dogbutt.
But one night, they dressed and painted themselves up and went way downtown in
Louisville, to the Beat Club, between a bunch of strip joints and hooker
bars, to sing a few of the oldest, twangiest country songs they knew.
They didn't particularly mean to make a habit of this, but somehow, as
the Tammy Wynette fashion sense and the bands got lost, Irwin and Bean found
themselves still singing together, under the name of Freakwater, which supposedly
is a hillbilly synonym for moonshine. At first covering other people's songs,
and then very gradually writing more and more of their own, Freakwater
specialized in older-than-old-school country, also known as "folk" music: chronicles
of love and other disasters. Full of images, swirling around and riding on
plain ol' tunes. (Well, the tunes are often kinda pretty, but they don't wear
much makeup.)
The contrast of words and music extend into and from Freakwater's
self-taught harmonies, guitar styles, and lifestyles. Irwin's the flat-picking, smoky
alto, who lives mostly in Louisville, painting canvas, houses, and other rude
objects; Bean's the strumming, translucent soprano, who moved to Chicago,
worked in law offices, and now studies genetics. Freakwater is unison, as well
as harmony, and unison is next to what some rule "out of tune," but also
subject to co-ordination. And stress. That has to be factored in too, if you want
what you've built to last.You gotta have stress, like you gotta have friends. On
1999's End Time, and 2005's Thinking Of You, they fit many session musicians
into a remarkably intimate, homebrewed sound. Reportedly thinking of John
Cale's Paris 1919, Big Star's Third/Sister Lovers (which took some cues from Dusty
Springfield's Dusty In Memphis, according to Ron Jovanovic's Big Star band
history) and Elvis' "sessions in Memphis and Vegas" (like "Kentucky Rain,"
maybe?), they quietly shift small, distinctive combinations of instruments in and
out of the foreground. (Currently, in the fall of '05, the touring band is:
Irwin, on banjo as well as guitar and vocals; Bean, guitar and vocals; their
longtime bass player, David Gay; with Joe Adamik on drums, bass clarinet, and
keyboards.) But I notice, adjusting the EQ, how easy it is to mess up the mix, so
that the instruments suddenly crowd the voices. And sometimes the images can
crowd the themes, as in one of their many struggles-with-religion-and-guilt
songs, End Time's "Cloak Of Frogs", which is as sensationally Southern Gothic as
you might suspect from its title.
And Janet Bean's 2003 solo album, Dragging Wonder Lake, is frustrating,
despite its inclusion of many (not all) good-to-great songs. (Just for one
example: a subset, comprised of a prequel and sequels, Bean's own equals, to Neil
Young's "Soldier." Overall effect, on paper, anyway: Flannery O'Connor
featuring Emily Dickinson, slicing and dicing Pat Benatar's "Love Is A Battlefield",
via John Cale's chamber of country-jazz-rock-blues-usage afterlife, Vintage
Violence.) And fine players. ('Tis said that Levon Helm was the only drummer that
could make you cry; haven't heard that track, but even if I had, I'd say: Dan
Leali, take a bow! But don't stop drumming.) But a number of tracks (it
varies; I'm still listening) tend to lose momentum, because Janet stretches her
voice too high and thin. And bids Kelly Hogan do the same! Kelly, who for
instance succinctly belted the role of doomed Lynyrdette Cassie Gaines on Drive-By
Truckers' Southern Rock Opera! And, dammit, despite the fact that Janet's done
her own share of belting, amidst the howling winds and northern lights of her
other band, the ruggedly neo-psychedelic Eleventh Dream Day, which, in songs
like "Frozen Mile," can seem at least as at home in Jack London's Alaska as in
Jefferson Airplane's and Neil-times-Crazy Horse's Northern California, or in
EDD's own Windy City, for that. Nor need she (or Kelly) necessarily belt, to
put a song across. In Freakwater, Janet sometimes sings a part which is usually
associated with harmony, but it's over and slightly behind Cathy's alto, so in
effect, Cathy's "harmony" becomes a counter-melody. (Which is also what
Ornette Coleman's saxophone, violin and trumpet seem to do, so maybe that's what he
means by "harmolodic," although the last time I checked, he still hadn't
offered a definitive-type definition.)(When they do this, they're still doing
their old-timey-associated tunes, so, in that sense, closer to Albert Ayler than
Ornette; Janet adopts a somewhat Ayleresque use of vibrato on some of Wonder
Lake, but (especially since she's not playing off Irwin, or Hogan, really) it
tends to come out more like Neil Young [if that such comparisons aren't too
contradicted by her stoicism vs. Ayler's and Young's tendencies to pathos]. Though
Young has said he's frustrated by his warble, and she may be singing what
he's going for, his voice is a little deeper, has a little more presence than
hers does on Wonder Lake.)
But these are experiments worth taking on, and usually, Freakwater's art
and hearts can cut a deal.And I do mean "cut." They like to sing about small,
shiny instruments, useful tools. "Needle in a haystack, burn the damn thing
down. And there you'll find the needle, lyin' right there, on the ground." Of
course it may get lost again, "lost but not forgotten!" Yes, so they can write
more anthems to the noble tool, and also mebbe keep hold of it long enough to
"write love letters in your skin," although that's just a passing fancy. (But
then, so are you.)
They do have issues with money, men, and other forms and uses of power.
In "Cheap Watch," when they hear last call, there's a mention of something
that isn't on the menu, a ball and chain. Sounds like they want one, or a new
grip on the one they've got, since they've got it, and as long as you're up; and
finally it occurs to dense male me, that Janis Joplin, who doesn't sound like
Freakwater otherwise, does sounds like she wanted that too, and for the same
reasons: to swing with, or to swing from, either way like a weapon, and/or
something in orbit, going around, coming around, and really getting out there, at
times, to swing. (Still the caveman's drawing, but maybe not too far off.)
So, as far as balls and chains go, a girl can dream about being a "Queen
Bee": "She's pretty and she's lucky but it's dark in there. She got a
honeycomb but she got no hair. The boys are waxin' her legs and doin' her nails,
knittin' her sweaters, with their pointy little tails. One little bee, the only
square in the hive, tried to get smart while he was alive. She aimed her hexagon
right between his eyes, and said, 'The Queen of the Bees, beats the Lord of
the Flies.' I'm gonna be the Queen Bee! And in the beautiful world I see, way
up in the hollow tree, perfect idolatry, little bees on their knees, saying,
"Baby you're the Queen Bee." (tiny fuzztones buzz) I won't grubbin' around down
here like I was, because, I'm gonna do like the Queen Bee does!"
End Of Part One, Part Two Continues Below:

 
  Louisville Lip Pfart 2

Louisville Lip Pft. 2

by Don Allred
Oh yeah, speaking of "Cheap Watch, " that's where Freakwater might be
thinking of your pocket: "Wound up, tighter than a cheap watch, wind it up, and
watch how the time flies. Little white teeth, wound around what sounds like
more cheap lies, li'l black clouds, suck us up to the sky." Those little black
clouds, like Woody Guthrie's "Little Black Train," which they also sing, will
show up, but on their own schedule, like needles and everything else. And not
necessarily in a good way. On Cut yourself A Switch, Irwin's 2002 solo album,
there's a song called "Cry Your Little Eyes Out," in which a grieving mother
feels the "blue sky, like a slap across my face." The Southern sun beats down,
the roses by her gate grow too tall, sporting their "crown of thorns." She
prays for "the dark clouds to roll in, but the Devil is a fairweather friend."
"Louisville Lip" is the true story of how young Cassius Clay threw
his Olympic medals off Louisville's Second Street Bridge, into the Ohio River,
after one racial insult too many. Voices point out "a big man crying from where
the bee stung" (crying from the wound itself!). So they take the line toward
compassion, via gut irony, though basically, of course, they're taking on what
they might've heard older people say. ("Loserville," a local name for
Louisville, is another anthem of sorts, a raised glass of mixed feelings, as a toast
to anyone's hometown should be.) An oblique stroke at redemption of misused
words, wasted breath, slighted youth, but ultimately, they seem to identify with
Clay's frustration, the feeling of being trapped in Southern history, of "My
History,"(an End Time song), anybody's.
As for the comforts of art history, on the new Thinking Of You, "Cathy
Ann" is about Woody Guthrie's daughter. It pictures her life on Coney Island's
Mermaid Avenue, rising and falling like painted waves, "born by the sea, born
for the fire, that was borne by the spark, that was blown by, a wire." Then
there's that chorus, knocking hard once more: "If your father didn't love you,
there's just no good in men." The verses don't describe or suggest in any way
that he didn't love her, or is at fault for her death. (Unless you count the
frames that slide forward a little, to where he's not only "shaking like a leaf,"
but also "shaking like a flame," and even then he's being "bitten by the
wind, that stole down from his brain.") There's been speculation that Cathy Ann
Irwin is willfully, cryptically projecting onto her subject. Maybe, but there's
another artist involved: Woody. (A few years ago, a whole book of songs and
pictures for and of his daughter was published.) "Your father always drew you,
in a sky of blue." She's trapped too, trapped in that same damn blue sky that
lashed the grieving mother in "Cry Your Little Eyes Out", trapped in dead old
Woody's songs, and/or their historical context, trapped in Freakwater's song.
Tough shit. You work with what you've got. Also on Cut Yourself A Switch,
Irwin sings about a Christmas Day long ago, on which she and her brother sang
with their family about baby Jesus. Then the two of them wandered off, where
"the snow would not cover the ground," it being in the South and all, and they
built a "Dirty Little Snowman." And he kept trying to fall apart, despite
their best efforts, but his "dirty mouth smiled," and also "three worlds
collided, on the day of his creation, his head and his heart set on the arc of his
foundation." Three worlds, colliding, set, and ready to fall apart, just as
everybody's basic elements are. In the path of the three wise men, who either did
or didn't or might've come looking for the baby Jesus, who the dirty little
melting snowman either is or isn't or might be a stand-in, though not a shoo-in,
for. (It sounds like a carol that's determined not to be a hymn, although it
almost could be.)(Oh,is this paragraph another spoiler? Listen, they've got
like nine albums, counting the two solos. And not counting Janet's songs
performed with Eleventh Dream Day, whose new one comes out in the spring of '06.)
Freakwater's new Thinking Of You is a little more overtly electrified
than previous albums. Cut to the part where the old gray tunewagon cuts through
the thicket of images, and the yellow flower shines down, watching tall
growths, maybe even taller than the roses that lorded over the "Cry Your Little Eyes
Out" mother's gate. They stretch their long necks up and gape, greedy for
more light, more life, ever more.
But all that greed could make you too fat, so once again, Irwin and Bean
call out their marching orders, to all thangs great and small: "Hi Ho Silver,
high on pills, use your hands, and tell me how I feel. Higher power, higher
hands up mine, tell me why your God is so divine." It's a challenge, but an
invitation too, like all their songs, so come along if you can.

 
Saturday, November 12, 2005
  Why I Went and Bought a Slipknot Album
Okay, I don't feel good about myself sometimes. But I was there with $10.54 in my pocket, and it was two discs for $9.99 at Target, and I figured this would be a good enough way to get an entire handle on their work without actually buying any studio albums...

Okay, but we have to go back farther than that. Why, exactly, did I have $10.54 in my pocket at Target? Because this is what I do when I feel low, freaked-out, sad, angry, whatever: I buy music. And my stomach has been killing me lately and I'm stressed out majorly (although my life's pretty good overall, still sometimes I get that angst thing happening), don't have my act together, etc.

And okay, I'm curious about metal. I have a pretty good working knowledge of "classic" metal, based on once being a white teenager growing up in a rural-suburban town, and also based on Chuck Eddy's book. But starting in the 1980s I saw it as poser music, pop wearing the masque of the black death, I was all about authenticity then. Boo me. So I turned poppy and worldy and rappy and all those other things I turned, and missed out on a lot of it.

People I respect take metal very seriously. I actually bought some Swedish band's record last year (year before?) because Scott S. was raving about it so much, dug it, but then sold it, and I still have Francis the Mute around here somewhere, and it freaks me out at times.

Okay, so the Mars Volta and Slipknot aren't REALLY metal, yeah I know, blah blah blah. Go complain somewhere else. I don't really love hearing death metal talk about how it love cookie ahm ahm ahm num num num. I should but I don't. I like the crunch of guitars and the screams of pain okay though. Nothing wrong with crunch and pain.

So I'm there at Target looking for something cheap. If I'd had a few dollars more I'd have bought something else. But two discs for ten bucks is a great deal, and it's 2005 so I figured if I love it I can review it for someone or put it on my year-end list or something. This is how my mind works sometimes. I could have also bought the orthodox reggae guy's live disc or some pop-punk stuff, but I didn't know which one was best, plus they're all Green Day anyway, which means they're all the Violent Femmes without the god/gay stuff anyway. And I have lots of Femmes already, as I live in Wisconsin.

So I grabbed up the Slipknot and played it on the way to work, and liked it just fine. There's a lot of yelling that I can't decipher; better that way, I decided after looking up their lyrics, even though they're not the worst I've ever read, it's just that if you look up lyrics on the inter nets then you should not be listening to Slipknot. They have a lot of percussion and some tasty guitar and the doom is laid on pretty thick, and I like the facts that there are nine of them and that most of their anger centers around the fact that they come from Des Moines, Iowa. Also, now that they have names and not just numbers, it's cool that there are guys "named" 133 and Clown but that the big hyperaggressive drill sergeant lead guy, who was made this way probably by lots of gym teachers acting like drill sergeants, is now called "Corey."

Also, some people complain that this album is produced badly, but they're high because it shouldn't be too clean. Also, some people want all the songs to be about getting plugged by Satan, but I don't; I'll settle for minor transgressives like slitting someone's throat and carnalizing the wound, which is on one song, and isn't good but at least his therapy didn't cost him anything. Not something to play when the kids are around, but whatevers. And, am I digging the beautiful moments, like when they turn slightly prog with high harmonies and acoustic guitars before the crunch comes back in on "The Nameless"? Sure, why not? That's awesome.

Some would say I should have completed my early Chicago collection by getting Chicago VI with that ten bucks, or getting more 1970s Joni Mitchell, or the King of Rock reissue. I would probably agree with those people, usually. But does this Slipknot album sound pretty great as I drive home from work banging my head to "People = Shit" and "The Heretic Anthem" ?

Oh hell yes.
 
Tuesday, November 01, 2005
  Ten Quick Shots to the Dome: November 1.
1. On the new George Clinton Presents the P.Funk All-Stars album entitled How Late Do You Have 2BB4UR Late? (bought it for $16 bucks, we had an email coupon for Borders, jaja suckaz), there is a nine-minute version of "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" featuring Bobby Womack. The song ends up as a medley of 1950s songs; at one point George sings "Let's go to the motherfuckin' hop." This is the greatest moment of music for me this year, or ever.

2. My son's favorite musical artist is the Four Tops. He is seven years old.

3. I have not heard most of the records everyone's talking about on ILM as their favorite of the year. I'm a little afraid to hear the Hold Steady because I'm afraid I'd like them. Otherwise: ugh. Indie white-guy stuff that I haven't been interested in since I renounced Blur. OMG SO CORNY!

4. I will have at least two Brazilian records in my top ten this year (Curumin, Badi Assad), maybe four (Heloisa Fernandes, Cabruera). I will have at least two Mexican records in my top ten this year (Natalia LaFourcade, Kobol), maybe four (Banda el Recodo, Ezequiel Pena).

5. Trying to read Frank Kogan's new book, but keep putting down my advance copy because I WAS FRANK KOGAN, except I was born about eight years later and three time zones westerlier. But it's all there: the relationship to music, the poetry of young revolutionaryism, the funky despair that leads to brilliant insight (well, Frank really IS kinda brilliant as a kid, I was just our town's functional equivalent). It's painful but it's awesome like an opossum and my teeth, I don't floss 'em.

6. Sorry, spaced out there for a second, the Bucks just came back to beat the Sixers in OT in the first game of the year. AW HELLS YEAH. On the other hand, it looks like Nene has already messed up his knee. My fantasy hoops team, the Parisian Nightsuits, is already screwed. (I hope you know where that name comes from.)

7. I voted for L.L. Cool J's Radio as my #1 album of the 1980s in that ILM poll, and Prince's "When Doves Cry" as my #1 song. I'll post more of my list if anyone cares.

8. Nice capsule review of Stevie's A Time 2 Love in the Village Voice. That last track is huge, with all the different percussionists going off all over it.

9. I spent last night doing laundry and dishes while listening to the entirety of Janet Jackson's Rhythm Nation 1814. How has everyone forgotten how dope this thing was? And who was it that said that Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis were the world's greatest band that year? (And if anyone knows where a fellow can find that butt bongo video, hook me up.)

10. I miss cruising. When the hell else am I going to listen to Foreigner?
 

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